“It’s what reality television should be”

It was her episode of Who Do You Think You Are? that led Noni Hazlehurst to hosting Every Family Has a Secret for SBS.

Revelations about her own family tree, and home truths her own mother had not shared, still resonate for the industry doyen.

But the other genealogy series has one very big difference, in not casting celebrities.

“Because they’re not well known, I think it’s easier for an audience to relate, to empathise and to really go on the journey with the subjects,” she explains.

“These are high stakes outcomes for these people. To me, it’s what reality television should be, because it’s actual reality for these people. It’s not exploitative, or manipulative of the subject or of the audience. I think that’s one of the reasons it stands apart and it encourages connection and empathy between human beings. We think, ‘How would I feel in this situation?'”

Every Family Has a Secret, now in its second season, is produced by WA-based Artemis Media, which previously made Who Do You Think You Are? Each episode profiles two Australians who trace their family tree to answer long-held questions, or even missing jigsaw pieces, of their family.

Hazlehurst meets each subject at the beginning of their journey.

“My involvement is not huge. I’m there for the initial interview, and to help them settle in and feel at ease, so they can just talk to me and not worry about the crew, albeit a small crew,” she continues.

“I have a pretty good idea of what they may discover”

“I have a pretty good idea of what they may discover when I initially meet them and talk to them. I have a list of questions that are given to me that they want to hit points with. But I also just let the conversation take its own form. They bring their photographs and relevant documents that they’ve already got.”

In the first episode this week Ellis Treleaven’s real identity has been kept from her for more than half a century. She travels through Europe, tracing her Dutch Jewish mother’s path through the Holocaust, to uncover the shocking secrets surrounding her own birth in a Nazi concentration camp and the true identity of her father. Then nurse Marie O’Connor travels to Italy, searching for the truth about her Italian father and the heartbreaking circumstances of her baby brother’s death.

In some cases the results are literally life-changing, but Hazlehurst assures the duty of care is uppermost in everybody’s mind.

“It’s often a disturbing outcome”

“Absolutely. That’s part of the follow through too -to make sure that people are okay, because it’s not always a happy ending. It’s often a disturbing outcome so it’s incredibly important that peoples’ welfare is looked after,” she insists.

“That’s one of the reasons why we stay in touch, because they do become friends. When you open up to people and allow yourself to be vulnerable, you discover that you have far more in common than what may appear.

“We all have a story to tell”

“We all have a story to tell, and we all have secrets, and we all have things that we’re vulnerable about. But if you share them, it can really bond you together.”

US-based genealogy company Ancestry is also a sponsor of the show, and is embedded in the episode with spokesperson Brad Argent making appearances to pass on DNA information.

“They’ve been an amazing tool to help us and I think the more people who do DNA tests, the more chance people have of linking up with family members, which can often be a source of great joy and fulfilment. I’m really enthusiastic about the technology because 20 years ago, you couldn’t have done it.”

Other episodes centre around a teacher who investigates clues around his mother’s disappearance and suspected murder in Melbourne; a businesswoman who digs into her mother’s glamorous past as an actress & wife to a Hollywood movie mogul; a search for the truth about a mother who was a sex worker; and a man who delves into the murky world of espionage to discover whether his father was a Soviet spy.

As Hazlehurst learned from filming her own story in Who Do You Think You Are? secrets uncovered can bring context to family choices, sometimes in the most difficult of circumstances.

“I just hope it encourages people to open up and not worry about the potential judgment,” she reflects.

“People make the best decisions they feel they can”

“Who are we to judge anybody? People make the best decisions they feel they can in the circumstances that they’re in.

“Forgiveness is easy, when you understand where they’re coming from, in most cases.

“It doesn’t necessarily bring closure to a subject, but a sense of belonging and understanding, which heals a hole in your heart.”

Every Family Has a Secret airs 7:30pm Tuesday on SBS.

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